Social media use increases depression and loneliness. That’s the finding of a new study that looked into the link between time spent online and poor mental health.
Experts have long theorised that a causal connection existed between the two but this has never been proven conclusively, claim researchers.
They say they have now found a connection between high levels of Facebook and Instagram use and decreased well-being.
As a result, they advise that people limit the time they spend on these kind of sites to a maximum of 30 minutes.
Avoiding comparing your life to the way other people portray their own online may also help to break this link, they report.
Few previous studies have attempted to show that social-media use harms users’ well-being, says University of Pennsylvania researcher Melissa Hunt, who led the research.
Those that have either put participants in unrealistic situations or were limited in scope, she claims.
This includes asking them to completely forego Facebook and relying on self-report data, for example, or conducting the work in a lab in as little time as an hour.
‘We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,’ said Dr Hunt, associate director of clinical training at the university’s psychology department.
Dr Hunt says the findings do offer two related conclusions it couldn’t hurt any social-media user to follow.
Because these tools are here to stay, it’s incumbent on society to figure out how to use them in a way that limits damaging effects, Dr Hunt said.
Reducing opportunities for social comparison may also help.
She added: ‘When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.’
‘In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.’
The research team designed their experiment to include the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates.
They collected objective usage data automatically tracked by iPhones for active apps, not those running the background.
Each of 143 participants completed a survey to determine mood and well-being at the study’s start, plus shared shots of their iPhone battery screens to offer a week’s worth of baseline social-media data.
Participants were then randomly assigned to a control group, which had users maintain their typical social-media behaviour, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to ten minutes per platform per day.
For the next three weeks, participants shared iPhone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual.
With those data in hand, Dr Hunt then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
They found increased time spent on the social media sites was linked with worse outcomes in all categories.
Writing in the study, its authors added: ‘Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.’
‘Here’s the bottom line,’ Dr Hunt said. ‘Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.
‘These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.’
Dr Hunt stresses that the findings do not suggest that 18 to 22-year-olds should stop using social media altogether.
In fact, she built the study as she did to stay away from what she considers an unrealistic goal.
The work does, however, speak to the idea that limiting screen time on these apps couldn’t hurt.
‘It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,’ Dr Hunt said.
But when she digs a little deeper, the findings make sense.
‘Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens.
‘When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.’
Because this particular work only looked at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, it’s not clear whether it applies broadly to other social-media platforms.
Dr Hunt also hesitates to say that these findings would replicate for other age groups or in different settings.
Those are questions she still hopes to answer, including in an upcoming study about the use of dating apps by college students.
The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
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